New York Comics Go Laughing Into the Heart of Darkness

Comedian Greg Barris hosts a 'Tent Revival' at Park Slope's Union Hall

Standup comedy is an inherently solitary act: a stage, a microphone, and a comic facing a tough crowd under a spotlight. But at the bimonthly, bicoastal comedy event called Heart of Darkness, the atmosphere is more of a communal gathering. Comics like Reggie Watts share their jokes almost campfire-style, backed with a house band that can shift the mood from light-hearted to trippy to introspective.

On June 27, HOD comes to Park Slope's Union Hall, this time with the theme of Tent Revival—it will include a nine-piece band/choir (with a harpist) and sets by comedians Watts, Dave Hill, Janeane Garofalo, and Craig Baldo. "It is an incorporative show," explains the project's charismatic creator, 28-year-old comedian Greg Barris, who will also take the stage. "The band and the comics will all be performing together, the audience will be involved, special guests will be involved—the whole way through. And people's sins will be forgiven."

The last part about forgiveness is key. It's a recurring topic in Barris's own act. During his sets, he will point at the crowd using a hand signal he invented (palm facing down, index finger and thumb pulling away from the rest of the hand), shouting: "I forgive everyone in here for everything you've ever thought! And I forgive all of my own thoughts." It always delivers big laughs, but the idea actually comes from his genuine quest for self-realization. "Forgiving each other—that's deep, like a spiritual thing almost," says fellow comic Derek Jones. "He's like this cult leader," describes friend and collaborator Dimitri Simakis, creator of the popular found-footage blog Everything Is Terrible! "It's just very weird and very funny." Watts, who recently finished a successful run on Conan O'Brien's comedy tour, is a fan of what he calls Barris's "really hilarious, cool, fresh approach" to standup.

That approach is inspired by unusual sources. A onetime philosophy major, Barris hasn't owned a TV in more than four years and reads voraciously—mostly works by controversial scientific philosophers like Immanuel Velikovsky. The books push him to "find out what we are truly capable of doing and being," he explains. "Greg is my kind of talent," says Kevin Chinoy, creator of MTV's Warren the Ape, which features Barris in an upcoming episode. "His comedy comes from an insightful exploration of society and the individuals within it."

Heart of Darkness—which also has a home at L.A.'s Moose Lodge—is the onstage embodiment of Barris's collaborative spirit. "Greg doesn't think like a conventional comedian, where it's just 'Me, me, me,' " says fellow comic Joselyn Hughes, a writer and head researcher on Comedy Central's Tosh.0, and a past performer at HOD. "He's thinking about his friends and incorporating media and art into everything he touches." The shows' dynamic posters, for example, are designed by artist and Barris's close friend Dima Drjuchin, who also plays in the house band. The opportunity to improvise music to suit the tone of the jokes, as well as have an occasional jam session with a comic, "keeps us on our toes as musicians," Drjuchin says.

The base camp for Barris's tightly knit creative collective is the Nolita restaurant L'asso pizzeria, where he is "chief strategist," overseeing everything from menu changes to marketing. L'asso serves as a framework for Barris's various projects—whether it's live shows, art exhibits, or T-shirt designs. "It's very Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," says Watts of the operation. Or as Barris likes to say: "They're listening to us, they're laughing at us, and they're consuming us."

 
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